February 26, 2020

In January, the broadcast journalism industry, and the listening audience from around the globe, lost one of its strongest voices. Jim Lehrer, co-founder of PBS NewsHour, was one of the giants of the news world for the past six decades.

Early in his career as a local Dallas reporter, he covered the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He went on to recount major US news stories for PBS including the Watergate scandal, President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, and the attacks of 9/11. He interviewed world leaders including Margaret Thatcher and Yasser Arafat, and moderated more Presidential debates than anyone else in US History.

Lehrer was most well-respected for his “laser-like intelligence,” his “very direct manner of interviewing,” and his “extraordinary ability to listen,” said life-long friend and journalism partner Robert MacNeil, in an interview with PBS. Together, Lehrer and MacNeil helped shape the future of journalism, creating an approach known as the “MacNeil-Lehrer style of journalism.”

According to MacNeil, Lehrer believed that there were always two sides to every story, that media must be careful to separate opinion and analysis from news, and that news is not the same as entertainment.

On air, he was calm and deliberate in his reporting, particularly in moments of crisis. Despite the frenzy of moderating debates, his goal was steady: to present the two candidates equally heard on the same issues at the same time.

As he wrapped up his time at PBS (he stepped down in 2011), Lehrer delivered a speech to the station managers:

We really are the fortunate ones in the current tumultuous world of journalism right now, because when we wake up in the morning, we only have to decide what the news is and how we are going to cover it. We never have to decide who we are and why we are there. That is the way it has been for these nearly 35 years and that’s the way it will be forever.

Lehrer helped shape a mission that allows an entire team to present, and by effect the public to receive the truth delivered directly and respectfully.